5 years ago during my last days at business school, I was shortlisted for the final round of placements for an international firm after being very very arrogant in the first round (I already had my dream job and wasn't interested in leaving India). In the final round, the senior management dude had only one question to ask: "Joseph, what keeps you up at night?"
I remember being stumped initially (as it is I was flummoxed at being shortlisted) and I also remember grinning widely 'cuz I was really starting to like this firm! I answered this: "Creativity. Creating new and interesting content keeps me up at night, keeps me going through the day, keeps me looking forward to the next dawn and pretty much drives my whole life. Whether it is a simple presentation of existing facts with some new thinking, a photograph of today's sunset or even a byline for a brand OR ANYTHING that I can make, it is in creation that all my happiness lies. It is not a way of life, it's almost an obsession."
Five years, 2 jobs and one chottu niche business later, I can happily say that nothing has changed. Heck, it has been just a shade more than 10 years since I picked up my first camera, just short of 10 years since I opened Photoshop for the first time, and slightly more than 15 years since I picked up a piece of pen n paper to write 10 page letters to my sister/dad complete with illustrations and more! The habit of blogging came n went, I ditched the canvas n brushes to pick up the keyboard n mouse, relationships have come and gone, homes have changed and I have gone from fat to thin to fat to now slightly chubby but that single obsession with creating content has been the one common factor in the conscious part of my life (Stephen King reference!).
So, why am I talking about this now? (Instead of working in Photoshop on my next upload of Postcards!)
Because I see a lot of new photographers/artists/writers addicted to social media and spending more time talking about their (or others'!) work than creating a body of work. And it doesn't help that appreciation for work is never too far away in this age. No matter how good (or bad) you are, a 100-500 Likes are never too far away, nor are a few RTs and a few thousand followers. Now, more than any other time, is when I think we might be facing a decline of quality of content around us simply because of the accessibility of appreciation. Don't get me wrong, I see unbelievably high amounts of good work being dished out every single day on behance/500px/1x/flickr/DA and many more such websites. But then, I also see a lot of crap everyday. Crap with a lot of Likes. The term "viral" is used like it is a daily word (I'm making a viral video - dafuq is that supposed to mean?) and "________ Photography" pages are created at the speed of 168 per second (unofficial stats here).
I am writing this not because more people are creating content (everyone learns only by doing *more* work), but because I get tons of "Invites to Like my page", "Oh your work is good, here's mine" posts on pages, "RT please." requests. So before this post turns from a thought to a rant, let me change the tone and talk about what makes me tick and how I go about my content creation.
Disclaimer: I do not consider myself an expert in this, far from it! I'm yet to create even one piece of viral work or something that has become world famous but I just like seeing great work around me. :) Also, this will focus on photography (mostly).
Tip: Pay close attention to the names/websites in this post, they have meant everything to me in my progress as a photographer.
Get better taste, aim higher - much much higher. Be inspired. Move on.
That's my way of saying look beyond your sphere of influence to things that are beyond your benchmarks now. If you are a wedding photographer whose style lies in making people look beautiful - immerse yourself in the best works in fashion/beauty photography across the world. Two weeks ago, I spent 4 hrs learning how to take a headshot (from a Peter Hurley DVD) and I constantly live in the world of Grazia/Vogue and beautiful movies. And though this means I look very effeminate while browsing in a bookstore or I see movies in still frames - to the extent that I sometimes can only see lighting, texture and color combinations and not the story! It also means that every time I put the viewfinder to my eye I see every detail, every highlight, every shadow in the scene and then take a decision to remove, add or modify the composition, exposure or any other variable. If you're someone who likes to 'capture the moment', National Geographic is a great place to start (and Boston's Big Picture feature). I've been reading NatGeo magazines since I was in 5th grade and they are the sole reason behind me picking up a camera.
When I started to learn photography, I used to be awed by Flickr's Explore section, and then while I *slowly* developed my skill I found myself moving on. My next stop was a great little web forum named FredMiranda.com which is a place for professional photographers of every genre to exchange thoughts and work. For the longest time, I spent countless hours in the landscape division, then sports and it is then that I stumbled upon wedding photography. The work I saw almost made me cry the first time, it was that striking, powerful and filled with beauty. But soon FM also died because of an influx of newbie photographers and the overall quality of work being displayed wasn't as strong as before. By this time, I'd become a constant follower of some of the best guys on FM (Tony Hoffer, Sam Hassas, Jeremy Clay, Spencer Boerup, EB, Brenizer) and a weekly visit to their blog was enough of a dose for me. In the eight years it took to me get here, I'd also started shooting a lot more so now I did not have enough time to spend on forums, I was now spending that time in Lightroom. I came across a wonderful set of DVDs titled "Masters of Wedding Photography" where I came across three greats - Jeff Ascough, Joe Buissnick and the very very awesome Jerry Ghionis. Today, I hardly go to any of the websites or photog's blogs mentioned. I spend my lunchtimes and lazy afternoons (if any!) on Vimeo while learning and looking at great work in the cinema/video space everywhere. I follow Indian and international cinematographers/DoPs whose work I admire, and try to see more great contemporary films. I also spend much more time looking at both old and contemporary art (most of which I don't "get") than I used to earlier.
I have no clue what will inspire me next but I am pretty darn sure that I'll never stop immersing myself in beautiful work everyday.
Ask why, not how. Obsess.
Everyone who sees a good photo nowadays asks "Which camera?" "What settings?" "What kind of editing did you do?" "Strobist info?". I'm sorry, my friend, but if you can't make that out while seeing the image itself you are doing it wrong. If you make/take enough images regularly and spend enough time looking at them instead of answering comments or waiting for Likes, you wouldn't be wondering such things. A 16mm lens looks very different from a 35mm and a f/1.4 shot looks very different from a f/4 shot. Harsh noon light looks way different from the soft myriad hues of sunset and so much more.
So before asking "How", ask "Why does this image look good?". Is it the geometry in the image? Is it the play of colors? What is being included/excluded in the composition? Why was this image shot at the time it was shot? Why does the light look the way it does? Why does the subject look good here? (Is it their stance, their confidence, the light or are they always that darn beautiful! :D) Look for BTS (behind-the-scenes) videos of photographers working, see how they interact not only with their subjects but also with their environment. How they shift around looking for light, how they create light, how they anticipate moments and anything you can garner. Look for patterns and similarities between the work you admire, I noticed that I loved how most of my favorite photographers made people look so happy and places look so "alive" that I felt like I was there, and I tried looking for similarities between their work. Of course, it wasn't just a broad search, it came down to specific things like processing, toning, and even focal lengths - or simply realising that I love images that are 'real' and not excessively photoshopped. This was what worked for me, you might love a different kind of style and am sure you'll find your inspiration if you look for it.
In the beginning, this tip just means shooting more and comparing your work to what inspires you and asking "why does that look better than my image?". Sometimes it is the lack of compression in the image, sometimes it is the lack of context, or inferior lighting, or not enough expertise in editing, or that it wasn't the right moment. As you progress, and observe more great images *and try to emulate them in the field*, your eye will evolve and see further detail and subtleties that you never noticed before.
I'm not saying "see, learn and apply", I'm saying "observe, obsess and evolve". Being obsessesed with your image is part and parcel of being a visual artist and the first step begins at pushing yourself to expand your vision and not be happy with 'nice' but instead aim for 'epic'. The one thing that I learnt across everyone's work was this: great images are not made by chance but with a lot of observation, experience and planning. And so here's my next tip.
Put in those 10,000 hours.
Those among you who have read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers know what am talking about but for the rest, here's a short summary: Gladwelll postulates that most super talented artists (and successful people in general) are not born geniuses but that instead they have put in a serious amount of work to get to where they are. The quantity of 10,000hrs of serious work is what is seen as the common factor between geniuses like The Beatles, Bill Gates and so many more.
I'll put it in a simpler way, something I teach at all my workshops: photography or almost any creative craft is like learning to drive. Initially, it is all about the car - how fast you let go of the clutch, how much pressure you put on the accelerator, when to put on the indicators, how to use the sideview mirrors and all those tiny details. Then it is about the cars around you, how fast are they going, how much space is there to do a manouevre and so on. But it is only after these phases, that the real fun begins: the road and the drive itself. After you put in enough time learning all the basics, you start to truly immerse yourself - feeling the g forces pull you and numb your ears while driving hard through a corner, the exhilaration of blasting through at 200kph, the joy of getting the approach speed to a corner just right and sailing through the apex. If you don't do the basics right, and don't spend enough time in the grind, the next time you are cornering at 100kph at an altitude of 1500+m, there's a high chance the scenery in the distance will be much closer, much faster than it should be. :D
Simply put: shoot more. Everyday if you can. Don't be scared to experiment, raise the ISO, go hand-held, shoot with your phone, use instagram. Do this enough and you'll reach a stage when the camera (DSLR/iPhone/Whatever) is a natural extension of your vision. When you reach that stage, the only limitation will be your vision, and your imagination.
Not to make great images or better your portfolio. But to soak in everything that his wonderful world has to offer. I believe that our work reflects who we are and that at the end of the day, we are simply the sum of all our experiences. Discover new languages, new food, new ways of living, do not be a tourist but truly travel by immersing yourself into a new culture. Your horizons will expand and your boundaries disappear. Make some images while you are at it but remember that the experience is far more important than the images. The memories etched in your mind are more significant than a few gigabytes of data (one of the reasons I didn't really moan when my hard disk of travel photos crashed).
Exploring the world in real life is a much more inspiring activity than couch surfing the internet. :)
Let this be the source of your happiness and your sadness, but not the only source.
Remember that life is far more than just this craft. Linda Montgomery says “When you do any kind of creative work there is an energy to it. This energy is made up of everything that is you, your personality, your life experience, the books you have read, the things that you are drawn to as a human being. This energy gives the work life and this is what people respond to when they see it."
Hence, live your life to the fullest, the richness will show in your work. :)
Finally, be obsessed wit your work but also learn to look back at your best work and grin.
I agree this sounds a bit self-involved but looking back at the best of your work makes you realise how good you are/were and you can be your own inspiration. When you feel your vision is at a low, it always helps to realise that it is just a phase. (I travelled to Bali last year and of the 2000+ images I shot during our travels, I returned with *one* image I truly liked!).
A REQUEST: If you've read this far, then please do SHARE this Note with your friends. Everything I've learnt in photography has been through the internet and this is my way of giving back the love. :)
PS: Be grateful that you have something that keeps you up at night. Most people coast through life without a passion that makes life so rich. :)
PPS: If you put any of this into effect and do create some epic images, feel free to share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let's see if we can work together someday. :D
PPPS: What's a post without an image? :)